POLK COUNTY, Fla. — A week-long undercover operation led to the arrest of 18 people, and an arrest warrant for another, accused of trying to meet children for sex.
Polk County investigators said undercover detectives posted fake ads or profiles online to try to catch the culprits as part of operation "April’s Fools."
The arrested included a football coach at Central Florida in Orlando, a Disney security guard and a married technician from Florida Hospital in Orlando.
"These freaks and these deviants are looking for our children every day online," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Investigators said suspected predators are using special apps to conceal their actions. Deputies urge parents to be the first line of defense to protect their children.
Several law enforcement agencies across central Florida were involved in catching the suspects.
Investigators said that despite the repeated warnings and media coverage of past operations, numerous men responded to the ads and then proceeded to chat online, email, text and talk on the phone with the undercover detectives, who posed as children or custodians of children online.
Authorities said the men solicited who they thought were children as young as 13 years old for sex acts, and two men solicited who they thought was the father of a 10-year-old girl to have sex with her.
Some of the men sent pornographic pictures of themselves and some asked for nude photos of the children to be sent to them, authorities said.
Several of the men drove to the house to follow through with the promises made online to engage in sexual activity with the juveniles, officers said.
The 18 suspects face a total of 103 charges (97 felonies, 6 misdemeanors) which range from: attempted lewd battery, use of a computer to seduce a child, transmission of harmful material to minor, use of a two-way communication device to commit a felony, traveling to meet minor, possession of firearm during commission of felony, drug possession, and possession of drug paraphernalia. More charges are pending as further investigation of these suspects' phones, computers, etc. continues.
Officers said nine men brought condoms, candy and illegal narcotics to the undercover location. Five men told detectives they were married. The youngest man arrested was 19 years old and the oldest man arrested was 60 years old. The average age of the men arrested is 28 years old. Investigators said the men have a combined arrest history of 24 previous felonies and 24 previous misdemeanors on different charges.
The following men were arrested:
- Christopher John Smith, 22, of Deltona. Smith works at Superior Lawn Care.
- Arthur Joseph Nelson, 19, of Orlando. Detectives said Nelson works as a janitor at Discovery Cove theme park. SeaWorld released a statement saying: "There is no greater responsibility than protecting the safety of our guests and ambassadors, and we have extensive measures in place including pre-employment criminal background checks and ongoing proactive security measures within our parks. We have zero tolerance for potential safety threats and have taken swift and appropriate action in this case."
- Jeffrey Erich Binder, 26, of Winter Garden. After his arrest, Binder told detectives, "Now I got to tell my work and family that I got arrested for soliciting a 14-year-old for sex." Binder works as a security guard at Walt Disney World. Disney said that Binder has been "placed on unpaid leave, pending the outcome of the charges."
- Michael Fernandez, 21, of Ocoee. He is a self-employed car washer.
- Michael Dean Thompson, 20, of Ponte Vedra. Thompson works at Publix.
- Jerin Jolly James, 28, of Celebration. Investigators said James told his wife he was going to 7-Eleven, but instead drove to the undercover location. James works as a technician at Florida Hospital in Orlando.
- Alejandro Pineda, 26, of Haines City. Pineda told detectives he is married and works in pool construction.
- Howard Bishop III, 60, of Lake Alfred. After Bishop's arrest, he told detectives the charges wouldn't stick because the detective told him during the chats that he was not a law enforcement officer, authorities said.
- Robert Michael Gordon, 20, of Clermont. Gordon is a football coach at Central Florida Christian Academy and a produce clerk at Publix.
- Mahesh Radhakrishnan, 32, of Lake Mary. Detectives said he is married and his wife and newborn baby are in India. He told detectives he is a computer program director.
- Preston Lee Bousquet, 28, of Daytona Beach. He told detectives he is married, and his wife is out of the country.
- Tyler James Knight, 26, of Davenport. Detectives said Knight is single and he receives $733 per month in Social Security benefits and $150 a month food stamps.
- Pedro Emilio Portillo, 24, of Apopka. He told detectives he works at Mullinax Ford as a manager.
- Samuel Orlin Hightower, 22, of Anchorage, Alaska. Detectives said Hightower was visiting Polk County. Officers said they found cocaine and a hallucinogen in his wallet. He told detectives he works as a customer service manager at Alaska Airlines.
- Joshua Dean Southerland, 19, of Davenport. His employment information was not listed.
- Larry Alfred Treharn, Jr., 33, of Naples. Treharn told detectives he is married and works as an electrician's apprentice.
- Keith Hartford Ingles, 59, of Lakeland. Ingles told detectives he was a firefighter for Polk County Fire Rescue for eight years. He currently is a mechanic.
- A warrant was issued for Brantley Ashton Thompson, 24, of Auburndale.
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